Dust or Magic, Tuesday, April 28 2009

Christopher Caldwell, immigrants, and the welfare state

FT columnist Christopher Caldwell has written a book called "Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West", to be published on May 7 by Allen Lane.

It will get a lot of coverage because it is has an anti-egalitarian, populist agenda. I think it is important for those of us who want equality to understand how this kind of right-wing populism works (as it has done in the USA almost since its inception).

He wrote this article for the Sunday Times (26/4/09):


I read it, and noticed a reference to a book I'd read a couple of years back which I thought had drawn rather different conclusions. I checked my notes and wrote the following letter to the editor:

Dear Sir,

In his article "Immigration and welfare: a bad mix" (27/4/09), Christopher Caldwell refers to the work of Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser - presumably their 2004 book "Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe - a World of Difference".

Alesina and Glaeser do not so much warn us about immigration, as the way "political entrepreneurs" may use immigrants as a way of attacking the welfare state, leading to similar inequality and social breakdown as in the USA.

They explain that the extreme, historic weakness of the USA's public sector derives from two things: an antiquated, 18th-century constitution established "by men of property determined to stop the state from expropriating their wealth"; and the racial and geographic fragmentation of US society, which made it easier to propagate the idea that "all poor people are lazy". Thus, "by convincing even the not so rich whites that redistribution favors minorities, they have been able to build up large coalitions against welfare policies."

Alesina and Glaeser warn that Europe could fall prey to this kind of populism, if anti-welfare state politicians are allowed to pursue similar, scapegoating politics - precisely the politics Caldwell is now promoting, it seems.

He asserts that Britain has "overgenerous asylum and welfare policies"" but they are nothing of the sort, as he well knows. Ask anyone who has tried to seek asylum or welfare, or to help those who need them.

He encourages the reader to see immigrants as scroungers: "welfare policies do lure immigrants", he claims. But where is the evidence for that? Very rich immigrants certainly come here to benefit from our very generous tax laws, but they are not the ones living in the makeshift encampments at Calais. The majority come either because they are desperate, or to work - and often end up working in the most horrendous conditions.

Our welfare state is not being undermined, insidiously, by immigrants, but in broad daylight by its increasingly-confident enemies: those who resent expenditure on public healthcare, welfare and education.

Christopher Caldwell's piece warns us that we are in danger of becoming a country that lacks the guts to face up to inequality, and prefers to scapegoat its weakest members instead. An old and unworthy game.

Yours sincerely,

Bob Hughes


PS - I should add that Alesina and Glaeser are not as robust in their condemnation of populism as they could be. Sometimes they almost seem to say it is inevitable. They perpetuate the myths that European societies are "homogeneous", and that their welfare regimes are "generous".

They also report research (Luttmer,"Group loyalty and the taste for redistribution", JPE, 2001) showing that "people are less likely to support welfare within the United States if they live near welfare recipients of another race." (p 134)

This might be interpreted differently in the light of UK research (I think two reports in recent years) showing that the prejudice disappears in communities that are mixed. i.e., the prejudice is strongest among people who are aware of 'the others' but have no personal experience of them.

But their consistent message is, racism is "the natural result of minorities who are disproportionately poor, and politicians who can push hatred to get elected on an anti-welfare ticket." (177) and

"When politicians see hatred as a tool that can achieve a political goal, such as fighting the welfare state, they will use that tool." (180) and

Europe is "increasingly susceptible to exactly the same form of racist, anti-welfare demagoguery that worked so well in the United States. We shall see whether the generous [!] European welfare state can really survive in a heterogeneous society".

These words seem now to be used in self-justification by the exact disease they warn against.

Posted by Bob Hughes on Tuesday, April 28 2009

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